Workers Speak On Production Slowdown

By Chanak Maduranga

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Workers Speak On Production Slowdown
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Veteran unscripted producer Wendy Miller was attending a gathering for women over 40 in unscripted television who are unemployed when she had the idea. Though the get-together could easily have turned maudlin, one woman brought levity to the proceedings by telling a story about working on a past show that cracked up the whole room. Miller envisioned a storytelling event, akin to The Moth, where reality TV workers could share outrageous career tales to a paying audience, thus raising money for needy peers: “All of us are unemployed and have no money, but there are people who are way worse. What if we use this as an opportunity to raise money for someone who’s really in dire straits?” Miller pitched the group.

 The ensuing “Hollywood Horror Happy Hour” (tagline: “We’re All Broke. Let’s Laugh About It!”), which took place May 21, was just one sign of the times in the nonfiction TV business. Jobs are scarce, budgets are crunched, workers are considering jumping ship and executives seem terrified to take creative risks on untested concepts. This has come as a surprise to some insiders in the space. There was an initial expectation that the 2023 actors and writers strikes would accelerate activity in reality TV, which boomed during the 2007-08 writers strike, but many say the opposite occurred — even though nonfiction, being relatively cheap to produce and largely nonunion, is a natural stopgap for entertainment companies during work shutdowns.

For the waiting workforce, development and production haven’t picked up much since then. “I’ve worked in this industry for 20 years, and all of a sudden the faucet just turned off,” says producer Patrick Caligiuri (Naked and Afraid, American Idol), who has posted multiple times to his TikTok since March about the struggles of entertainment workers. (His first post, emblazoned “Reality TV is dead,” took off on LinkedIn, racking up over 2,000 likes and nearly 300 comments.) 

“It’s not just people who just moved to L.A. to get into the business that can’t find jobs,” adds one veteran reality TV producer. “It’s somebody who’s been working for 25 years and has a résumé that I would kill for who’s saying they haven’t worked in a year.”

Many veteran unscripted producers and sellers, who asked to remain anonymous in a bid to protect future sales, say the downturn is mirroring what’s happening in the scripted TV space as budgets there, too, are being squeezed across the board, and especially on broadcast. Unscripted shows, which historically have been cheaper to make and faster to produce, are feeling the same fiscal pinch as their scripted counterparts as media companies right-size their slates and spending. “It’s the same problem as scripted, and it’s really depressing,” says one veteran reality executive.

The overalll contraction and M&A have also meant fewer buyers for unscripted fare. Max, for example, no longer has its own unscripted department after incorporating Discovery’s vast portfolio of programming into the streamer. “At the legacy companies, you have massive fiscal pressure going on — just look at the stock prices. Those are the traditional buyers. It’s the same reasons you’ve seen in scripted, just leading to unscripted as well,” says one longtime seller.

Budgets for the shows that are being greenlit, meanwhile, are getting slashed, which is trickling down to affect the salaries that are being offered, according to sources. Some particularly noteworthy examples have made the rounds in online reality communities: One longtime reality producer, who says seasoned story producers used to be able to make $2,800 a week, shares a job posting starting May 31 and offering $350 to $450 a day, which amounts to $1,750 to $2,250 a week; a story producer sends a screenshot of a job starting in January that offered $1,800 to $2,200 a week for the same role. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot more supply than demand right now” when it comes to available workers, adds the veteran reality TV producer. As a result, “Everybody’s Scrooge McDucking it.”

More than ever, unscripted insiders say, buyers are risk-averse and relying on bets that are considered to be safe. What is working right now? “The big franchises are still being greenlit, and that’s both the big IP — Deal or No Deal, MasterChef, Lego Masters — and franchises like Below Deck and the Housewives,” says Banijay Americas CEO Ben Samek, who oversees nine production companies across the United States and Brazil. “New stuff has to be thoughtful and have a reason why it’s going to get bought.” 

Fresh sports-related ideas have been especially welcomed in the wake of the popularity of Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive series, which has been credited with raising viewership of races in the U.S. Insiders note that LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s production shingle, the SpringHill Company, has been a standout seller during this time, with three upcoming sports documentaries for the History Channel and an upcoming docuseries for Vice TV announced just in the past few months. Game shows, too, are prospering amid the overall nonfiction slowdown. Titles like Fox’s The Floor and The Quiz With Balls, both shows that debuted in 2024, can be done on a budget and earn impressive ratings numbers, explains one 20-year unscripted veteran. “And they repeat, too,” this person says. “People forget questions and rewatch. [They’re] easy to put on and watch.”

For those unscripted workers who aren’t attached to long-running franchises and aren’t working on these genres that are breaking through, however, 2024 has been brutal. One longtime editor in the space says she sold a second home out of state and is in the process of selling her L.A. home with the intention of renting until she decides whether she will stay in the city or try to buy a new home. The longtime reality producer shares that her mother took money out of her emergency fund to help pay her bills. The producer has applied for a job at Trader Joe’s. Caligiuri, who began his career in news, dusted off his résumé and started freelance writing for a local news affiliate. 

For freelance workers, this period has led to concerns about what the workforce will look like in the next few years. Some who spoke for this story don’t know if they’re going to stay in the business. “I’m writing all day. I’m writing scripts, I’m writing half-hour pilots, I’m writing features, I’m creating reality shows,” says Miller, “but at the same time, I can’t help but think that for the most part, it’s over for me.” Others just wonder who will be left in the reality business in the next year or two. “Our industry has just been kind of flatlined. It’s on life support,” says Caligiuri. 

In the meantime, some production companies are getting creative, diversifying their revenue streams to weather slumps in the nonfiction market. Critical Content, behind MTV’s Catfish and Netflix’s Sly, for instance, has focused on branded partnerships and first-look deals in international territories to try ideas first overseas and then bring them back stateside. It’s also developing a FAST channel for the truTV hit Storage Hunters, which the company owns. The thought is, “How do we continue to feed that [unscripted sales] pipeline but also build other pipelines?” says president Jenny Daly.

Glass Entertainment Group, behind HGTV’s Christina on the Coast and Tough Love With Hilary Farr, meanwhile, expanded into podcasting about two years ago and sometimes develops that IP as unscripted shows. Results of this effort have included Hulu’s Betrayal: The Perfect Husband. “We were like, ‘You know what? If we believe in a story and there isn’t a TV home for it, let’s make a podcast.’ Well, our podcasts have done really well and therefore have become TV shows,” CEO and executive producer Nancy Glass explains. Others are just pushing through the contraction, trying to unearth ideas that will break through. Says one veteran executive, “What are we supposed to do? We’re sellers. We have to keep persevering. Talking about it doesn’t help. You have to try or nothing will get through.”

This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Chanak Maduranga

passionate journalist behind 'USA News Now 24', dedicated to delivering timely and accurate updates on US affairs. Committed to journalistic integrity and informing audiences with credible news coverage.

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